Brian De Palma Essay - Critical Essays

De Palma, Brian

Introduction

Brian De Palma 1940–

American director and screenwriter.

De Palma's best-known films lie somewhere between the thriller and horror genres. The plots are often confusing and shrouded in mystery. Dreams and the supernatural are integral parts of many of De Palma's films, as are grisly, horrifying deaths and murders. Critics see De Palma as the most Hitchcockian of all current filmmakers.

De Palma's first films give little clue as to his future. Greetings and Hi, Mom! are youth-oriented films satirizing the beliefs and ideals of the older generation. When the films were first released, catch phrases such as "semi-underground" were used to describe them, contributing to their status as "cult" films.

Phantom of the Paradise is a pivotal film in De Palma's body of work. It contains much of the humorous satire of Greetings and Hi, Mom! More importantly, however, it includes many of the elements of thriller and horror films. A sense of uneasiness is created through the use of offbeat humor and special effects. These devices are repeated in De Palma's later films.

Carrie was De Palma's first great commercial success. The film combines terror, pathos, supernatural elements, and dark humor, and is suspenseful throughout. More than his earlier Sisters and Obsession, Carrie deals in what De Palma calls "surrealistic, erotic imagery." The Fury is so similar in theme to Carrie that many critics see it as a direct, albeit inferior, steal, and have viciously attacked De Palma for his lack of sustainable creativity.

Dressed to Kill is the most Hitchockian of De Palma's films. Its scenes of extreme violence and explicit sex have led some people to term the film pornographic. However, others see it as a modern-day extension of Hitchcock's films. De Palma himself refutes this, saying that "Dressed to Kill has more of a Buñuel feel to it."

Blow Out contains many of the same elements as his previous films. De Palma describes the work as a "detective thriller" about a film sound effects editor who witnesses a political assassination. Thus, despite his statements to the contrary, De Palma seems to be shaping a body of work which will likely continue to be compared with the films of Hitchcock. At the same time, however, many critics find the combinations of diverse elements in De Palma's films to be highly original and creative.

Vincent Canby

"Murder à la Mod," the first feature to be released here by de Palma, is [an] ambitious and abrasive work. It opens with an unseen director screen testing girls for the lead in a nudie murder mystery, which without the nudie element, becomes the frame for the film itself.

It's as difficult to tell the difference between the reality and the illusion within the film as it is between the blood and catchup in the film-within-the-film.

"Murder à la Mod," has a mind and reality of its own. It's completely logical in its use of cinematic tricks—speeded-up action and slow motion, and slapstick humor that is not funny, juxtaposed with mayhem that is.

There is a limit as to just how far this sort of playfulness can be carried. In the context of most of today's moviemaking, however, it's fun to see directors who are willing to acknowledge the movie form, and who do not try to convince us that what we see on the screen is necessarily "real." When they don't try—curiously—we often do believe, which is what movies are all about.

Vincent Canby, "Films for Film's Sake," in The New York Times (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 2, 1968, p. 57.∗

Paul Schrader

"Greetings" [is] the funniest and most contemporary American comedy since [Kubrick's] "Dr. Strangelove." This comparative judgement is less indicative of the excellence of "Greetings," than it is of the general irrelevance of American comedies. "Greetings" isn't a very great film, but it certainly is a rarity. It shines out like a gas lantern in an amphitheater….

When "Greetings" first flashes on the screen, the young viewer is taken back: they really are talking about things he cares about. American comedies—even the funny ones—are notoriously behind the times, but the so-called "youth films" are not only old-fashioned, but bland and glum…. As any hipster knows, there are some guys who can get away with saying "Hey man" and some who can't. Brian DePalma is one who can.

"Greetings" manages to include a satirical comment on just about every cause or fad that fills the youthful mind: the draft, computer dating, shoplifting, stag films, JFK's assassination, abstract sculpture, sex positions, Vietnam, high-culture movies, and peeping toms. In other words, everything that movies usually avoid.

DePalma blends the comic styles of Godard and The Committee. Like Godard, DePalma has the courage not to move the camera to let a scene play out its inherent humor…. Like The Committee "Greetings" has a cynical, no-bullshit sense of humor, like Godard it exhibits an artificial and ambiguous frame of...

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A. D. Malmfelt

Greetings is, quite simply, a fraud. For it pretends to be about the young and the hip, while actually being about what the middle-aged and the square consider the young and hip to be. Yet, oddly enough, even the film's detractors appear not actively to dislike it. The worst objections have been to the effect that the film is very crudely made but that it at least has its heart in the right place…. In point of fact, Greetings has its heart in the right place only on a commercial level. But even if one assumes that the makers of the film have not intentionally pandered to some public concept of what the youth of today is all about for the sake of their own financial gain, the kindest thing that can then be said is that they have failed not morally but intellectually. (pp. 37-8)

[There] is no evidence of a directorial personality at all, much less one capable of imposing on the film a world vision extending beyond the limitations of the script…. In their quest for the contemporary [the filmmakers] have paid close attention to the miscellaneous parts of their film but have given little evident thought to the whole, either as a structural work or as an expression of some rational point of view. Everything has been sacrificed to the twin goals of presenting an easily recognizable picture of youth and of provoking a few laughs. It seems not to have occurred to them that to be conceptually silly, thematically inconsistent and technically incompetent is not necessarily Where It's At. (p. 38)

The function of the film director is to direct the camera and the actors, in that order. Observed from this point of view, director de Palma is far more conspicuous by his absence than by his presence. His handling of actors is extremely tentative. It is as if he did not want to push anyone to work very hard, or simply wanted to get his scene shot and move on to the next location. Except when placed in a fixed position from which they do not move, the actors almost never relate...

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Howard Thompson

With an unconventional technique, including quick-cut editing and speeded-up locomotion reminiscent of the old silent comedies, plus an impromptu flavoring, ["The Wedding Party"] starts extremely skittishly, levels off appealing and comes in a neat winner.

The opening chapter, with a formidable old country house swarming with wedding relatives and guests, bounces along with an arch, peppery detachment that gets a bit wearing, along with a frisky musical score heralding the humor. Some viewers may wonder if the writer-director-producer team—Cynthia Munroe, Brian de Palma and Wilford Leach—hasn't simply aimed its camera helter-skelter and let fly. Not at all.

The picture often verges on slapstick, and once or twice plunges in headfirst. A wonderfully funny and brash chase scene toward the end, with the reluctant bridegroom pursued by two pals, is pure Mack Sennett. And some of the wedding participants and their monologues seem overly caricaturized. But at about midpoint the human element begins to shine through….

Best of all is the exact middle sequence, when a hilarious premarriage banquet develops into a near-seduction scene upstairs between the tipsy bridegroom and the wallflower church organist, that can only be called endearing. The utterly natural flow and simplicity of this vignette, as sweet as it is comical, is the real pulse of the picture….

As newcomers to the feature film field, the independent team of Miss Munroe, Mr. Leach and Mr. de Palma … are welcome. They have created something fresh and funny.

Howard Thompson, "'The Wedding Party'," in The New York Times (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 10, 1969 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1969–1970, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1971, p. 28).

Roger Greenspun

Among contemporary urban-scene-movies … Brian De Palma's "Hi, Mom!" stands out for its wit, its ironic good humor, its multilevel sophistications, its technical ingenuity, its nervousness, and its very special ability to bring the sensibility of the suburbs to the sins of the inner city. With no recognizable landmark further north than Cooper Square, it nevertheless feels like Bronxville or the quieter stretches of the upper East Side.

Not that it aspires to quietness or that it even for a second eschews relevancy….

"Hi, Mom!" turns approximately every other current social misery to a comedy that is sometimes quite elaborately successful and sometimes only well...

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John Simon

Hi, Mom! is, regrettably, an almost total waste of time. The filmmakers have run out of ideas: they either try to milk the same situations as [in Greetings] (making Peeping-Tom sex films), or if they come up with something new (militant Black Theater that humiliates and manhandles white liberal audiences), they stretch it out as desperately as beggars their last crust of bread.

There are even more basic problems. Hi, Mom! is clearly improvisatory cinema, an enterprise that requires true brilliance somewhere. It may be in the director (e.g., Fellini, in some of his earlier films), or it may be in the performers…. Here, however, brilliance is not forthcoming…. And...

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Vincent Canby

[De Palma] is a very funny filmmaker. He's most funny, so far, anyway, when he's most anarchic, and "Get to Know Your Rabbit," though somewhat inhibited by conventional form, has enough hilarious loose ends and sidetracks to liberate the film from its form….

Movies that promote the importance of non-conformity are almost always fraudulent or, what's worse, they're sentimental…. "Get to Know Your Rabbit" largely avoids those pitfalls, and with a great deal of comic exuberance. It also reinforces my expectation that De Palma will one day make a really fine American comedy.

Vincent Canby, "'Get to Know Your Rabbit'," in The New York Times (© 1973 by...

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Vincent Canby

["Sisters" is] a good, substantial horror film with such a sense of humor that it never can quite achieve the solemnly repellent peaks of Roman Polanski's "Repulsion." Never, however, does it become the sort of Nancy Drew detective tale it otherwise resembles, at least in outline….

Mr. De Palma, best known for his anarchic comedy …, reveals himself here to be a first-rate director of more or less conventional material that has associations not only with "Repulsion" but also with Hitchcock's "Psycho." The "Psycho" associations are unfortunate, since they tip one important plot point sooner than is absolutely necessary….

An intelligent horror film is very rare these days....

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Vincent Canby

Brian De Palma's "Phantom of the Paradise" is a very busy movie.

Among other things it attempts to be a put-on of "Faust," "The Phantom of the Opera," "The Picture of Dorian Gray," rock music, the rock music industry, rock music movies and horror movies.

The problem is that since all of these things, with the possible exception of "Faust" (and I'm not really sure about "Faust"), already contain elements of self-parody, there isn't much that the outside parodist can do to make the parody seem funnier or more absurd than the originals already are….

Compared with even the last of [De Palma's earlier films,] "Phantom of the Paradise" is an elaborate disaster, full of...

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Pauline Kael

Brian De Palma, the writer-director of "Phantom of the Paradise," thrives on frowzy visual hyperbole. When he tries to set up a simple scene establishing that boy composer loves girl singer, he is a helpless amateur, but when he sets up a highly stylized paranoid fantasy with gyrating figures on a stage and an audience that is having its limbs hacked off, you can practically hear him cackling with happiness, and the scene carries a jolt. De Palma, who can't tell a plain story, does something that a couple of generations of student and underground filmmakers have been trying to do and nobody else has ever brought off. He creates a new Guignol, in a modern idiom, out of the movie Guignol of the past…. [A] mixture of...

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Richard Combs

Too broad in its effects and too bloated in style to cut very deeply as a parody of The Phantom of the Opera, Brian De Palma's [Phantom of the Paradise] is closer to the anything goes mode of a Mad magazine lampoon. De Palma's last feature to be released in this country, Blood Sisters [also released as Sisters], was a reasonably efficient pastiche/parody of Alfred Hitchcock; here he seems to have been infected with a large dose of [Ken] Russellmania, and while not up to the razzle-dazzle effects that the Master commands on a doubtlessly larger budget, Phantom of the Paradise nevertheless offers fair competition to and comes on much like Tommy…. Unfortunately, the...

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Penelope Gilliatt

Brian De Palma's "Obsession" is an hommage to Hitchcock's "Vertigo."… But it is intellectually muddleheaded in a way that Hitchcock's films never are. It is not up to the Master's insteps. There is a point at which hommage has an enfeebling trait of echolalia. (p. 61)

The plot proceeds, but it keeps faltering, because of De Palma's damaging affection for throwing the obvious into doubt. The screen gets the shimmers at key moments, which is a cheat. Are we watching a subjective expression of the hero's troubled state of mind? Or dreams? Or hallucinations? Story points keep being coated in Vaseline….

Brian De Palma obviously has an idiosyncratic point of view and a...

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John Simon

Obsession attitudinizes in three directions: toward the Hitchcockian thriller, toward the old-fashioned tearjerker, and toward the sophisticated European film, with cultural references strewn like bread crumbs along the way of Hansel and Gretel.

Such a mishmash could be endearing; as it happens, it is neither mish nor mash so much as mush….

[Paul] Schrader and De Palma have loaded their penny dreadful with allusions high and low. There are overtones of The Winter's Tale, the Bluebeard story, Rebecca, and, of course, Vertigo. There are quotations from Dante's Vita nuova, likewise a tale of loving obsession. And there is more: The fresco with whose...

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Pauline Kael

Carrie is a terrifyingly lyrical thriller. The director, Brian De Palma, has mastered a teasing style—a perverse mixture of comedy and horror and tension, like that of Hitchcock or Polanski, but with a lulling sensuousness. He builds our apprehensions languorously, softening us for the kill. You know you're being manipulated, but he works in such a literal way and with so much candor that you have the pleasure of observing how he affects your susceptibilities even while you're going into shock. Scary-and-funny must be the greatest combination for popular entertainment; anything-and-funny is, of course, great—even funny-and-funny. But we come out of a movie like Carrie, as we did out of [Steven...

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Barrie Pattison

[In Obsession,] De Palma has suppressed his own strong personal style … consciously manipulating [the familiar Hitchcockian] elements so that the suspense is maintained to the key decision and understanding of the final shot. It's a stylish and accomplished achievement….

Along with Ted Flicker's work De Palma's Greetings and its quasi sequel Hi Mom! were the most accurate expression of the late sixties in America…. These films lead to the flamboyance of Phantom of the Paradise while the comparatively subdued Get to Know Your Rabbit or Sisters edge towards Obsession….

One of the most entertaining films of the year, Obsession...

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Royal S. Brown

De Palma sets us up with a cinematic technique in the same way Hitchcock sets us up for the shower scene in Psycho, with the rainstorm, the gothic setting, and the kinky motel manager with his stuffed animals, all of which play on negative predispositions in the audience's minds. In both cases, the directors have shown an awareness that the deepest impression comes not from the jolting, unprepared violence found in B-horror flicks, but from modulated variations, as extreme as some may be, which are all threads of a single fabric.

De Palma fits Carrie's finale into the film very much the way a composer would close a musical composition, by reusing a "progression" that has been solidly...

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Vincent Canby

"The Fury" was directed by Brian De Palma in what appears to have been an all-out effort to transform the small-scale, Grand Guignol comedy of his "Carrie" into an international horror/spy/occult mind-blower of a movie. He didn't concentrate hard enough, though "The Fury" is bigger than "Carrie," more elaborate, much more expensive and far sillier. Let's face it—it's the De Palma "1900"—a movie that somehow got out of hand.

It's also, in fits and starts, the kind of mindless fun that only a horror movie that so seriously pretends to be about the mind can be. Mr. De Palma seems to have been less interested in the overall movie than in pulling off a couple of spectacular set-pieces, which he does....

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Pauline Kael

There's an ecstatic element in Brian De Palma's new thriller The Fury: he seems to extend the effects he's playing with about as far as he can without losing control. This inferno comedy is perched right on the edge. It may be to De Palma what The Wild Bunch was to Peckinpah. You feel he never has to make another horror movie. To go on would mean trying to kill people in ever more photogenically horrific ways, and he's already got two killings in The Fury which go so far beyond anything in his last film, Carrie, that that now seems like child's play. There's a potency about the murders here—as if De Palma were competing with himself, saying "You thought Carrie was frightening? Look...

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Andrew Sarris

[If] I were tempted to turn off my mind, it would be for something like Brian DePalma's latest exercise in torrential terror. By the end of The Fury, the bloody, extra-sensory carnage seems a bit much, but I must confess that the film as a whole tended to absorb me into its wild fancies. I was entertained. The movie was fun. Still, the spoilsport critic within this fun-loving fool is not entirely sure that The Fury deserves a clean bill of health as a coherent piece of work.

To the adolescent aggressiveness of Carrie, DePalma and his novelist-scenarist John Farris have added the political paranoia of the post-Watergate era in which the CIA can be accused of...

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Vincent Canby

Any movie that contains a doctor-nurse joke is all right by me. Brian De Palma's "Home Movies" contains not one but several doctor-nurse jokes or, even better, doctor-nurse sequences….

"Home Movies" also contains jokes about innocent young men who are still virgins and virginal-looking young women who aren't, sexist jokes, jokes about marital infidelity and closet homosexuals, even movie jokes. They aren't all hilarious, but even the ones that aren't knee-slappers are friendly, if only for being well-meant….

["Home Movies"] is a movie that deals proudly in undergraduate humor….

"Home Movies" is nothing if not casual in form. Sometimes it's a...

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Roger Angell

A fatal air of insideyness and glorified amateurism infects ["Home Movies"], which is a low comedy about sex, ugly parents, and filmmaking. Almost everyone in the picture is making a movie or is about to appear in one…. [The picture] sometimes appears to be part of film sequences being explicated to a class…. The youthfully experimental and extemporaneous circumstances under which "Home Movies" was to be made must have convinced someone (perhaps Mr. De Palma) that it would be appropriate to make it a farce—a very bad decision indeed, because convincingly zany, knockabout comedy is one of the most difficult of all forms, requiring a sharp script, first-class acting, and rigorous cutting and pacing. None of these...

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David Denby

[Dressed to Kill] is the first great American movie of the eighties. Violent, erotic, and wickedly funny, Dressed to Kill is propelled forward by scenes so juicily sensational that they pass over into absurdity. De Palma releases terror in laughter: Even at his most outrageous, Hitchcock could not have been as entertaining as this.

For the easily frightened moviegoer, De Palma's flamboyance is reassuringly "cinematic": You can see that he's using film techniques and tricks to get at unconscious fears and to extend the lyrical possibilities of violence, and you admire his sadistic virtuosity even as he's manipulating you unconscionably. As in such past De Palma thrillers as...

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Pauline Kael

In "Dressed to Kill," everybody is spying on everybody else, or trying to. And the director, Brian De Palma, who also wrote the script, is the master spy….

Over the years, De Palma has developed as an artist by moving further into his material, getting to deeper levels of erotic comedy and funnier levels of violation. If he has learned a great deal from Hitchcock (and Welles and Godard and Polanski and Scorsese and many others), he has altered its nature with a funky sensuousness that is all his own. The gliding, glazed-fruit cinematography is intoxicating but there's an underlay of dread, and there's something excessive in the music that's swooshing up your emotions. You know you're being toyed...

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Robert Asahina

De Palma's latest effort, Dressed to Kill, borrows liberally from his previous films: the "surprise" ending, a shock that turns out to be merely a nightmare, recalls Carrie; the element of voyeurism derives from Hi Mom! and Home Movies. But these are nothing compared to what De Palma steals from Hitchcock. Adding a little nudity and sex, he makes off with more or less everything from Psycho, right down to the shower scene and the psychopathic killer who dresses in women's clothing.

What De Palma leaves behind is Hitchcock's cynical Catholicism. His point of view, as both a writer and a director, is simply amoral; he dispatches his characters in spectacularly gory...

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George Morris

There is plenty of terror in Dressed to Kill, but the aesthetic distance that separates De Palma from Hitchcock can be measured by the absence of any emotion approaching pity. De Palma never tries to get inside Dr. Elliott, the would-be transsexual murderer …: he merely uses the characters as a catalyst for the succession of jolts that provide the film with its tenuous unity. The director has learned too well from Hitchcock how to manipulate the emotions of an audience, but whereas Hitchcock directed the means of the manipulation toward a larger end, De Palma is consumed by the methods alone. Hitchcock was always straining to perceive the nature of evil; De Palma, at least at this point in his career, seems...

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Pauline Kael

"Blow Out" isn't a comedy or a film of the macabre; it involves the assassination of the most popular candidate for the Presidency, so it might be called a political thriller, but it isn't really a genre film. For the first time, De Palma goes inside his central character…. And he stays inside. He has become so proficient in the techniques of suspense that he can use what he knows more expressively. You don't see set pieces in "Blow Out"—it flows, and everything that happens seems to go right to your head. It's hallucinatory, and it has a dreamlike clarity and inevitability, but you'll never make the mistake of thinking that it's only a dream. (p. 74)

Jack is a man whose talents backfire. He...

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Michael Sragow

De Palma makes movies about divided personalities, characters uncertain of their social and psychological identities, torn between impulse and reason. He plays dark games with them among the land mines of our cities, where a rape, a race riot or a revolution could be just around the corner. His material is often Grand Guignol, but the intelligence behind it is as sophisticated as Edgar Allan Poe's.

A daring writer and director, De Palma attacks his controversial themes with new frankness and confidence in Blow Out. This powerful political thriller—raunchy, funny, yet poetic—is the most startlingly fresh film released so far this year. Its vision of a robotized United States, tranquilized...

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